Listening and engagement – how journalism is changing for the better

I’ve just started a new job at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, after 15 months as its digital and production editor. Here’s my take on why this is important – piece originally published on the Bureau’s website: thebureauinvestigates.com

We’re launching a three month project so that we can learn how to engage better with our readers, supporters and collaborators – and we need your help.

Since 2010, we have built our reputation as a non-profit media organisation that produces investigative journalism to empower citizens and protect democracy. We want to inform the public about how power works in today’s world. We expose wrongs, counter fake news and spark change. We do this at a local level – with our UK based Bureau Local network – and globally.

Our Bureau Local project has shown how and why homeless people are dying on the streets and shone a light on cuts to women’s refuges as well as putting shrinking council budgets under scrutiny.

Our global superbugs project has highlighted the challenge of the threat to healthcare – from resistant TB devastating the slums of India to women losing their wombs in Malawi because of antibiotic resistance. We’ve shown how major supermarkets are now using American style beef lots to raise the food we eat, with this being just one of many stories in our food and farming project.

We’ve built on one of our oldest and most established projects, tracking drone warfare, and launched a wider project, Shadow Wars, investigating President Donald Trump’s covert wars around the globe. We also consistently highlight the human cost of such hidden wars.

We’ve been able to do the work we do because foundations and a small number of individuals fund our journalism. But we want to do more.

There are many ways we could develop and expand our journalism, and get it seen and shared in more places. We could pursue our existing projects for longer, or take on new topic areas. We could use new storytelling formats and new platforms, and experiment with different ways of getting our findings to people affected and to policy makers. We could make our audiences a much bigger part of our journalism, from start to finish.

But we’ve not made up our minds yet, because we want you to be involved. So we’re going to spend the next three months listening to you about our work and hearing your ideas about our future direction. Yasmin Namini, one of our board directors who is advising on the project, asks: “What is the value of the Bureau and its investigations to our readers?”

We’d like to invite you to tell us your views on all of this. What kind of journalism could and should we be doing, and how we can communicate better with our readers and with potential new audiences? Are there particular organisations you know of that engage really well with different communities, or tell stories in exciting ways? Let us know, and give us tips on anything else we could be looking into as part of this research, by emailing thebureaulistens@tbij.com.

We’ll keep you posted, on our website and on social media, as our thinking develops.

I’m grateful to the Bureau for the opportunity to lead on this engagement project as my own work has taken me on a journey towards working more deeply with communities or what the journalist, Dan Gillmor, calls ‘the former audience’, characterised by media which reaches out to citizens and asks them to participate more deeply.

In my own case, I’ve written extensively about marginalised communities at risk of harm and exploitation but my journalism has been shaped over the last decade by a realisation that my work could be better if I worked alongside my interviewees in a deeper manner, rather than interviewing them and then speaking for them.

In my first book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people(Portobello, 2011), I investigated a relatively unknown crime – that of violence against disabled people. That book was influenced by the disability movement’s mantra, ‘Nothing about us, without us’. I listened to heart-rending stories of violence, talked to the bereaved and highlighted campaigns for justice. But I also involved affected families and the disability movement itself in my work, revising some chapter sections after consultation and even sharing some draft sections of my work as I went along.

I applied some of those same lessons to my next book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013), where I worked alongside both settled and nomadic communities, revising my work in the light of their comments.

I’ve changed the way I do journalism as a result of my own experiences and by reading deeply about more engaged forms of journalism. In particular, I no longer feel that readers and interviewees are passive, or that it is always wrong to consult readers as a story progressed, or that their voices are only there to facilitate my own journalism. I clarified these thoughts, in a piece, ‘No More Voiceless People’ for the Society of Authors magazine, which you can read here.

 

Our Bureau Local homeless project, charting those who die on the streets and in temporary accommodation

But the Bureau is also enthusiastic about looking at how it can work better with its readers and communities it reports on. We already collaborate widely with networks through our Bureau Local work, but we want to do more. Like other news organisations, we are aware that journalism is under threat, and that the models that used to sustain it are no longer working on their own.

Advertising budgets have dwindled, there are constant cutbacks to local journalism, and authoritarian leaders even attack the notion of press freedom and dub good reporting fake news. This, in turn, has led to a populist rise of distrust against journalists in certain countries, though it’s not the same everywhere. Journalists also bear responsibility for some of the criticism. News and comment are often mixed. Not all news organisations fact check to the extent they should. There are big challenges – one of them being that tech companies largely control how and where people consume our work as journalists.

But we have the chance to change our journalism, and there are some great models emerging. We’re going to be talking to organisations in the US, as well as European media organisations such as Correct!v and De Correspondent, all of which have developed more participatory models of journalism (for some of their work, at least). As our Bureau Local director, Megan Lucero says: “It is crucial we report with communities, not just on them. Opening up our journalism and working closely with collaborators and readers is vital for the future of the news industry.”

 

A Malawian woman affected by womb loss, photographed for our Global Superbugs project

They all have one thing in common – they listen to their readers. So that’s where we’re going to start. This deeper engagement matters. Newsrooms that have reached out to their readers have changed and deepened their journalism as a result. As the Texas Tribune’s 2025 strategic plan says:

“We must prioritize our readers’ needs alongside our own. The people we’re trying to reach must be able to see themselves reflected in both our reporting and our newsroom…There is no better time to be doing this work and no better place to do it. The stakes are mountain-high. The issues in play are getting more complex. The need for explanatory journalism, for investigative journalism and for the watchdog reporting that holds public officials and institutions accountable has never been greater.”

We’re excited to embark on this dynamic process, of listening to you and reflecting on how we should change. Please get involved and share your opinions about how the Bureau is doing, what issues you’d like us to cover and how we could involve readers more deeply through principles such as co-production and collaborative working.

“We want to move away from a place where we as journalists broadcast our final findings to our readers, but instead collaborate more with our readers and supporters to decide what we investigate and how we do it, perhaps even actively involving our audience in the work,” says Bureau managing editor Rachel Oldroyd. “If we really want our work to make a positive change to society then we need to do it in collaboration with the people who live in it.”

 

Header picture, of a Bureau event, by Rob Stothard. All other pictures from current Bureau work areas, including global superbugs, food and farming, Bureau Local and Shadow Wars.

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GDPR – my privacy policy

The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) will govern the way companies of all sizes manage and are responsible for the personal information they store and use. It is designed to give people more control over the information that is held about them, and to provide a legal framework to protect that control.

The new legislation is necessary because the way personal information is stored and used has been completely transformed over the past few decades. Existing legislation across Europe, including our own Data Protection Act 1998, has fallen behind as innovative ways to collect and exploit personal records have evolved, especially online.

I have read the Information Commissioner’s Office guidelines for compliance with the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules. This document that follows explains how I comply. If you have given me your email address, you should read this to reassure yourself that I am looking after your data extremely responsibly.

If any of you understand this even better than me and believe there’s something else I should be doing, do let me know. I value the security of your information extremely highly and will never intentionally breach the rules. However, the rules are designed for organisations and most authors are sole traders just doing our best to keep up.

I have used the ICO booklet, “Preparing for the General Data Protection Regulation – 12 Steps to Take Now.” Here are my answers.

Awareness
I am a sole trader so there is no one else in my organisation to make aware.

The information I hold:
Email addresses of people who have emailed me and to whom I have replied – automatically saved in gmail.

I do not share this information with anyone. Ever.

If someone randomly asks for another person’s email address, unless both are known closely to me, I always check with the other person first.

Communicating privacy information
I am taking five steps:

I have put this document on my website.
I have added a link to my email signature.

I have added a link to my contact page.

Lawful basis for processing data
If people have emailed me, they have given me their email address. I do not actively add it to a list but gmail will save it. I will not add it to any database or spreadsheet unless someone asks me to or gives me explicit and detailed permission.

 

Data breaches
I have done everything I can to prevent this, by strongly password-protecting my computer, Google and Dropbox accounts. If any of those organisations were compromised I would take steps to follow their advice immediately.

Data Protection by Design and Data Protection Impact Assessments
I have familiarised myself with the ICO’s code of practice on Privacy Impact Assessments as well as the latest guidance from the Article 29 Working Party, and believe that I am using best practice.

Data Protection Officers

I have appointed myself as the Data protection Officer.

International
My lead data protection supervisory authority is the UK’s ICO.

Investigative journalism works: the mechanism of impact

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It’s landed, a really thought-provoking report by the film-maker, Christopher Hird, on how journalists can achieve impact with their work, funded by the not-for-profit foundation, Adessium. I edited the report, which is over 100 pages long, and you can read it here.

I also blogged about it for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which commissioned the report, and my blog is below. I’m reposting it as I think the report raises important points for those interested or involved in public interest journalism.

In Investigative Journalism Works: the Mechanism of Impact, a report for the Bureau, journalist and film-maker Christopher Hird quotes the reporter, Horace Greeley, who said: “The moment a newspaperman tires of his campaign is the moment the public notices it.” The aim of this report, commissioned by the Bureau and funded by the public benefit foundation, Adessium, was to look at how journalism can have an impact in the world and get the public to take notice. This is particularly important for not-for-profit media organisations like ourselves; our mission statement states that our core work is in “exposing the facts, informing the public, holding power to account”.

One of the key messages from Hird’s report, which I edited for the Bureau, was that journalists, if they do have an intended aim with their journalism, need to be patient. It requires long-term commitment from editors too, something demonstrated, in particular, by Harold (later Sir) Evans, with his campaign to secure justice for families affected by Thalidomide, discussed by Hird in Chapter Two of our report.

Some journalists debate whether not we should campaign and have clear aims for the end of every journalism project. Others are more comfortable with campaigning – there’s a spectrum of opinion stretching from what one might term pure reporting (exemplified by channels such as BBC Parliament and newer organisations like WikiTribune) through to campaign-led journalism by specialist outfits such as Global Witness and Greenpeace. One of the key messages of Hird’s report is that campaign-led journalism doesn’t have to be a poorer (and, to some, slightly disreputable) cousin to investigative journalism. If anything, Hird argues, with more not-for-profit journalism funded by philanthropic organisations, the return that they seek, in Hird’s words, is “transformation, rather than transactional”. To that end, one key recommendation of the report is that media organisations (following on from some in TV) consider appointing impact editors/producers, who work alongside journalists to achieve desired change.

Slide-10-Impact of Journalism

 

We also commissioned a YouGov survey of a representative sample of opinion formers, both in the UK and in Brussels, to gauge their views of impact in journalism. There was widespread agreement that investigative journalism can have impact on consumer behaviour, on policy-makers and can also set a broader media agenda. Over three-quarters of those polled believed that investigative journalism was an important pillar of the democratic process. Strikingly, when asked which investigations had most impact, many of those surveyed singled out the Watergate Scandal and Thalidomide, as well as other scandals (a good number of which involved vulnerable people and children in particular). Hird, therefore, has looked at both Watergate and Thalidomide in the report, as well as scrutinising the Bureau’s drone project and Channel 4’s campaign to shine a light on the aftermath of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka (see picture of slide above).

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Iconic as Watergate is, especially for journalists, Hird argues that the truths of the investigation have been obscured over time. Whilst the reporting was key to Nixon’s resignation, Hird argues, other parts of civil society and the criminal justice system were essential too. “It was not the journalism alone which had the impact. In order for the investigation to gain traction, the legal and political system needed to engage as well..the Watergate story, in its entirety, is a triumph of the checks and balances in the political system.” Reading Hird’s copy, I was also struck by the similarities with the Trump era today; the chapter gave me hope that journalists, working in collaboration with other actors, can hold power to account.

In Chapter Four, Hird turned his attention to a series of films, commissioned by Channel 4, which shone a light on the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which ended in defeat for the so-called Tamil Tigers. Callum Macrae, the producer/director for the films, makes a cogent case for how journalists can and should negotiate with campaigners who are also hoping to bear witness to injustice and, in this case, human rights violations. He attacks the use of the word impartial in this context (something with which I would agree, having filmed with the BBC in Rwanda, after the genocide).

Macrae is quoted in the report as saying: “If you are are impartial between the rich and powerful and the poor and vulnerable, then you preserve the status quo. So I think the word ‘impartial’ is all too often used as a kind of device or fig leaf to cover up what is shoddy, complacent and compliant journalism which does not attempt to speak truth to power.”

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In the final chapter, Hird turned his attention to the Bureau’s own drone project, in which we have sought to increase transparency of the covert drone war by the US against targets in four countries – Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. Our contention, from the beginning of the project, has been that civilian casualties have been far higher than the US has ever admitted. Just as in Vietnam, they are the collateral damage of a war that may spare the lives of American troops – but not of citizens in those countries, including children. As for impact, Hird notes that it has been significant – the drones programme under President Obama was made more transparent and civilian deaths fell. Other groups have also increased their scrutiny of this hidden war. However, since President Trump took office, deaths have risen sharply and the US led NATO mission in Afghanistan has stopped providing us with strike data. Despite this, our work shows, in Hird’s assessment, “sustained commitment..impact is achieved by the interaction between the journalism and other civil society organisations and the political process.”

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Hird concludes that investigative journalism works and can have an impact. Journalists need to be tenacious and bloody-minded if they want to change government policies, bring down the corrupt and save lives. Until now, Hird says, we haven’t had to identify the mechanisms by which journalism achieves its end. But we do now, because, frankly, impact is, as Hird says, “a measure of success and therefore a route to an important source of funding for public interest journalism”.

But funding alone, in my view, probably isn’t what gets most journalists up in the morning. On a personal level, when I look at the journalism I’ve been proudest to be part of, it’s been about results in the real world. From getting war criminals sent to the Arusha war crimes tribunal, to a Guardian front page splash on Turkey Twizzlers, leading to them being taking off school menus, to campaigning for disability hate crime to have parity with other similar crimes, I’ve always been interested in measurable change for the person on the street, whether they are a genocide survivor in south-east Rwanda, a disabled person or even my own school-age daughter and her peers. (And, of course, with these campaigns reform wasn’t achieved by reporting alone.) I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that journalism matters on a visceral level to many reporters.

But impact in journalism is best achieved, as Hird recommends in this valuable report, when lots of other organisations can work with us to achieve an aim on which we can all agree – mediated, to some extent, by the work of an impact producer, as Hird argues.

Lastly, I was struck by Hird’s emphasis on collaboration, whether it was with fellow journalists or with other key figures – law-makers, academics, charities and whistleblowers. The phrase from the disability movement, “nothing about us, without us” is timely right now. As our new network, Bureau Local does already, to some extent, we need to shift position and, where appropriate, align ourselves alongside what Dan Gillmor has termed the “former audience”, who can participate in what we do, rather than see ourselves as set apart from civil society. Then the impact we seek to achieve will be clearer from the outset – and useful to those who entrust us with their stories.

 

2017 Impact Report

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An image of the Bureau newsroom

I’ve been a little silent recently, as I started a new post as Production Editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in July last year and it has been busy.

I’m very pleased to work at the Bureau, as it’s known, with some very talented people.

Towards the end of the year I put together and wrote the Bureau’s Impact report for 2017. It’s a record of sterling journalism in the public interest, following in a long tradition of journalism that seeks to expose wrongdoing and shine a light on poor practice, wherever it takes place.

Here’s the link to the report – it’s an honour to have worked on it for my new employer.

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Empathy Day

It’s Empathy Day today, and I’m delighted that one of the books I co-wrote with Richard O’Neill, last year, illustrated by Hannah Tolson and published by Child’s Play, is on the list of 21 recommended books for the day (and beyond).

Ossiri and the Bala Mengro is the story of a young girl from the Traveller community, who longs to be a musician. She isn’t very good, yet she perseveres and has adventures on her travels with her loving family. We very much hope that this story shows that whilst people from a variety of backgrounds, such as the Romani and Traveller communities, may seem different, at heart people often have a lot in common. It was a lot of fun to write with my co-writer, the English Traveller Richard O’Neill, whose stories have been handed down in oral form through many generations.

Good books open doors onto other lives; they show the humanity in all sorts of lives (yes, even when authors shape-shift and become cats, dogs or aliens). We are experiencing migration across the world in increasing numbers, as people flee war, environmental crisis and terrorism. My own mother fled from Yugoslavia with my (then pregnant) grandmother after the Second World War, to escape Communist rule. They had lived through bombing, under Nazi occupation and had lost close family members. They had been internally displaced and, by the war’s end, had been deprived of almost everything. When they arrived at Croydon Airport they had one small suitcase (the size of Paddington’s suitcase) between them. They were lucky to be welcomed when they arrived here, with the assistance of the Red Cross, by distant family members and strangers alike. (You can read my mum’s story, ‘Becoming English’ in A Country of Refuge, published last year) So building bridges between cultures is very close to my heart and the natural, heart-felt kindness that children feel and show towards strangers is always a joy to see.

I hope that the books I have written for the last ten years all show an attention to empathy – whether it is towards disabled people, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers or yes, even wilful girls like my very own Fussy Freya (my first book for children) who refuse to eat!

Happy Empathy Day and congratulations to all the authors on the list, and heart-felt thanks to Empathy Lab for all their hard work.

 

 

 

 

 

Election pieces

A quick blog to give links to my latest pieces on the general election 2017 for Prospect Magazine. I first looked at UKIP’s chances in Boston and Skegness:

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/enter-paul-nuttall-ukip-general-election-boston-skegness

This week, I looked at the fight for the South London seat of Vauxhall.

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/winning-vauxhall-kate-hoey-liberal-democrats-brexit

Lastly, I looked at the contested seat of Tooting, and how disabled people might affect the election. Prospect – disabled voters

 

 

 

The heft of a place

This week I was lucky enough to join Ken Titmuss, an expert in old maps who runs London walking tours, on one of his outings in Vauxhall. Ken, a former community worker, really knows his stuff, although he wears his knowledge lightly. I met Ken, along with some charming German students at the local station. He gave us copies of four old maps of the area, in covers, for us to refer back to as we walked around the area.

We circled around what was left of the Pleasure Gardens (now a well-used park, with a fine tea house at one corner). Ken explained the history of the Gardens, and then we struck out a little further, finding traces of the Royal Doulton tile factory, an old school and the former graveyard, amongst other treasures such as tucked away Georgian houses. IMG_9006

I was there because I wanted to get a better feel for the second third of the book I am writing at the moment, about two young girls, in Georgian times, and their precarious life in London before being transported to Australia in the 1820’s. The first third is set in Norfolk. I know the South Norfolk landscape well; I’ve walked it many times with my parents. I’ve seen the seasons come and go; I’ve heard the birds sing, and watched them out hunting. I’ve been to the great church below, in Redenhall, many times, and know its place in the landscape and in the hearts of the people about whose ancestors I am writing. I’ve swum in the slow, local river, taken boats out on it. The heft of the landscape is within me and so although I’m going back in time, some 200 years, I feel at ease with it.

 

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Now I have to go through the same process with London, and it’s so much harder because of the multiple descriptions by other writers. I have to peel them away and find my own voice, in a landscape that has been so well conjured by others.

So having a guide who can walk you through history is useful. Ken brought Vauxhall to life, but he was also kind enough, at the end of the walk, to go with me to what remains of the Millbank Penitentiary to identify parts of the outer wall that remain.

 

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We walked round the vast footprint of the building as it was, through social housing and around Tate Britain, which sits on its foundations. This forbidding structure would have dominated the riverside when the two girls lived in London. They were intimately acquainted with the Penitentiary, having spent some years inside it before being transferred, with marsh fever, to the hulks. Their life in the London was typical of that of poor young women – life in and out of institutions, on the streets, before they were transported. My task is to breathe life into their voices, as their lives are currently mediated and communicated by those who disparage them. It’s about raising the dead from paper, and hearing them speak back, in the landscapes that formed them.

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Oh, and if you want to join Ken on one of his excellent walks, he can be contacted through his website on on Twitter @oldmapman.